You can dress it up to look like a private residence, but there’s no disguising a mosque in the neighborhood, with parking all over the streets, eardrum-shattering calls to prayer five times a day, not to mention the tanking of nearby property values because nobody but Muslims will want to buy houses there. (Note: BNI is mentioned here)
The Guardian A bitter legal row over a mosque in an affluent New Jersey town shows the new face of
Islamophobia justifiable anti-Islam sentiment in the age of Trump.
Forty years ago, Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a Pakistani-born Muslim, made his home outside New York City in Basking Ridge, NJ. Basking Ridge is out in horse country, an area of rolling green hills and white-steepled churches, not far from Bedminster, where Donald Trump has his summer estate.
In 2004, at the height of George W Bush’s war in Iraq, Chaudry (below) became the first Pakistani Muslim to serve as mayor of a municipality in the US. He ran a small nonprofit organisation called the Center for Understanding Islam, and taught classes at local universities.
in 2011, when he found a new cause: building a mosque in Basking Ridge. For years, Chaudry and other local Muslims had been using a community centre for a makeshift Friday service. But Chaudry decided that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge needed a permanent place to pray, and he located what he believed to be a suitable site: a four-acre lot occupied by a rundown Dutch Colonial house.
Soon after purchasing it, Chaudry held an open house to greet the neighbours. “There was not too much tension,” he said. “It was kind of jovial.” He put the letters “ISBR” on the mailbox in front of the house, to announce the Islamic Society’s arrival.
Then someone smashed the mailbox. “I was, of course, very surprised,” Chaudry said. Under New Jersey’s planning laws, the Islamic Society had to secure the approval of the municipal government to build the mosque, and from his experience as a public official, Chaudry knew that the town, which prided itself on its quaint homes and a history dating back to colonial times, was resistant to new development of any kind.
But this was a house of worship, and he was someone well-known to the community. “It’s not that I was expecting any favours,” Chaudry said. “I expected them to be fair.” What shocked him, though, was the hatred.
That was seven long years ago, before some townspeople formed a group calling for “responsible development” in furious opposition to the mosque, before the 39 planning board hearings, before the mosque was rejected, before Chaudry filed a lawsuit alleging religious prejudice, before his lawyers uncovered racially charged emails among officials opposed to his plan, before the Obama administration accused the town of civil rights violations, before national rightwing activists took notice of the dispute and began smearing Chaudry as a terrorist sympathizer, and before Trump proposed a total ban on Muslim immigration. Today, Chaudry knows his town – and America – better.
Long before Trump came along to capitalize on it, though, anti-Muslim hatred was building in the US, bubbling up like swamp gas from the depths. Often,
racial religious conflict would manifest itself in small, seemingly isolated local planning fights over proposals to build mosques.
The US Department of Justice, which staunchly defended the rights of Muslims during the Obama administration, noted a sharp increase in such mosque disputes between 2010 and 2016. Many took place in conservative locales such as rural Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But they also broke out in unexpected places such as Basking Ridge: a wealthy and well-educated community in the outwardly tolerant north-eastern US.
During a Basking Ridge town meeting, all anyone wanted to talk about was Chaudry and the mosque. “The neighbours near this proposed mosque did not sign up to live next to this house of worship,” said one resident, who broke down sobbing as she spoke. “They have been members of a quiet residential neighbourhood for decades, and do not look forward to having their routines and lives disrupted.”
The residents said the mosque would create traffic and commotion, and would ruin their property values. But they also complained about the tactics Chaudry had employed in his bitter court battle. One middle-aged woman gestured toward the mosque opponents in the audience, saying that many had been subjected to “a hateful harassment campaign” by the Islamic Society’s attorneys, who had served them with subpoenas seeking the contents of their personal email and social media accounts, in an effort to prove that they were motivated not by planning concerns, but animosity toward Muslims.
“Mr Chaudry has waged an expensive PR campaign that has talked about people as if they’re bigots,” the woman said. “And personally, I think it is the ISBR group that has been bullying and bigoted.” Then she invoked Trump, the inescapable presence. “They talk about our current president and how he speaks about Muslims. Well, I find ISBR’s rhetoric to be just as harmful.”
Finally, Loretta Quick, a schoolteacher who lived next door to the mosque site, got up to speak. She was one of the neighbors who had come to Chaudry’s initial open house years before. She had even voted for him, back when he was a politician. Now she was a die-hard enemy of the mosque. “If you cave,” she told the board, in a furious voice, “you’re saying that we are bigots, that we based the decision on discrimination against Islam.”
Quick was one of those who had been served with a subpoena, and was being represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an advocacy group that claims its mission is to defend “America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values” against forces waging a “Stealth Jihad” to “transform America into an Islamic nation”. Quick referenced a recent press release the Law Center had put out, which had plucked a few verses from a searchable English translation of the Qur’an that could be accessed on the ISBR website – “Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them”, etc – to suggest that Chaudry was somehow in league with religious extremists.
“These are words that seem quite intimidating and threatening to me,” Quick said. “I want to be protected, and you owe that to me, this township and this nation.”
How did a small-town property dispute turn into a religious war, with legal and symbolic implications for all of America? Part of the answer has to do with the country’s labyrinthine land-use laws, which leave most control to state and local governments, which are in turn vulnerable to the furies of angry mobs.
But something else deeper and darker seemed to be at work. Some residents openly discussed theories, such as the idea that the mosque was meant to send a message of conquest, due to its proximity to the town’s September 11 memorial. Such notions, promoted by anti-Islam bloggers such as Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, used to be confined to the margins of the internet. Then Trump embraced the Islamophobes, unabashedly.
“It’s like his election has given permission to people,” Chaudry told me the first time we met. We were at the proposed site of the mosque, sitting in the old suburban house that he was still hoping to demolish. Standing on an easel in a corner was a poster-sized rendering of the proposed mosque. In an effort to make it fit into its suburban surroundings, it had been designed to resemble a mini-mansion, with gray clapboard siding, a pitched roof with asphalt shingles, dormer windows and minarets disguised as chimneys.(Below)
But the architecture did little to defuse tensions with the surrounding neighbourhood. Liberty Corner considered itself separate from the older and wealthier village of Basking Ridge, though they were both part of the same larger township, and few outsiders recognised the geographical distinction. People in Liberty Corner expressed an obstreperous ideology often abbreviated as “nimby”, for “not in my backyard”.
The opponents of the mosque told their own story of victimiation, in which they were merely objecting to Chaudry’s oppressive development scheme. “It was always about land use,” one Liberty Corner resident told me. “They made it about religion.” The nimby complainers claimed that the mosque site – a marshy plot on a mainly residential street – was a poor location for a busy house of prayer. When the township planning board took up Chaudry’s proposal in August 2012, signs soon appeared in front yards around town, reading “Preserve Liberty Corner”.
At one of the first planning hearings, a resident named Lori Caratzola stood up to challenge Chaudry. A law graduate, she cross-examined him about the size of the Islamic Society, accusing him of understating its membership. She revealed that she had done surveillance of a Friday service, counting 125 worshippers going into a space with a capacity for 60. After her confrontational performance, Caratzola became a leader of the opposition.
Based on the information released to date by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the news media, our concerns include the following:
public safety and traffic congestion at the accident-prone intersection of Somerville Rd/ Church Street and the surrounding busy intersections
the proximity of the development to the Liberty Corner Firehouse
the outsized scale of the proposed project
the proposed hours of use, which include activities at least 5-7 days a week
proposed lighting for the structure and parking lot
potential wetlands and environmental issues
the inevitability of future growth, given statements by ISBR representatives that the facility will be adequate for only 10 years
At the public hearings, Caratzola and others confined their criticisms to the nimby issues: drainage, parking, landscaping and the like. They convinced the board that a mosque would need more parking spaces than a church, because midday worshippers would come alone. When the Islamic Society submitted a new plan, with a larger parking lot, the mosque’s opponents protested that, too. It quickly became clear that the opposition was not solely concerned with parking.
Around the time the hearings began, some residents received an anonymous piece of mail. Inside was a letter entitled “Meet Your New Neighbor”, and a CD containing a recording of a radio interview in which Chaudry had offered some mildly nuanced opinions on Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah. “Here in Basking Ridge, on the surface, we see the serene, grinning academic Ali Chaudry, always willing to help us better understand the version of Islam he wants us to know,” the letter read. “Scratch the surface a little and an uglier picture emerges.”
The author of the letter tenuously linked Chaudry to the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Ground Zero mosque” – a proposed Islamic community centre in Lower Manhattan that Pamela Geller and Fox News had whipped up into a national controversy. It cited the term taqiyya, an obscure theological concept that Islamophobes often twist to suggest that Muslims are encouraged to lie about the true nature of their violent beliefs.
“So, welcome to the neighbourhood, Ali,” the letter concluded. “Let’s ask Ali about those quranic verses regarding Jews and Christians in your quran. Why are so many terroristic acts propagated by Muslims? Is it something they are taught in your mosques and at home? And what will you teach in your new Liberty Corner mosque? You wouldn’t lie to us, would you? Taqiyya is wrong, right?”
Just as the author of the letter accused Muslims of deception, the Islamic Society, in its lawsuit, alleged that many of the neighbours were presenting a false front, using preservationist sentiment to disguise their real, less respectable fears. “The key thing to remember,” said Adeel Mangi, an attorney for the Islamic Society, “is that these complaints are commonly used as a smokescreen.”
There is, literally, an anti-mosque playbook. Tactics were once unwritten, spread through websites and word of mouth, but more recently they were set down in a book titled Mosques in America: A Guide to Accountable Permit Hearings and Continuing Citizen Oversight. Written a Texas attorney, it was published by the Center for Security Policy, an organisation headed by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official who has long espoused the theory that Muslims are engaged in a secret plot to impose sharia law on the US. Gaffney writes in the book’s introduction that it is a “how-to manual for patriotic Americans who are ready to counter the leading edge of Islamic supremacism”.
The manual offers lessons from cases like the one in Basking Ridge. “It may be startling to consider, but Islamists are entitled to exploit liberal free speech rights to advance their political and legal operations,” the author warns. It advises residents to express objections in the manner most likely to sway the authorities, avoiding mention of religious issues.
“Concerned citizens must learn to express questions and reservations in a manner appropriate to the relevant civic forum’s purpose,” the manual says, instructing readers that “rather than expressing alarm as hysteria, speaking to local government officials and media requires a strategic response based on reason, facts, precedents, and the law”.
Sure enough, the transcripts of the dozens of hearings held by the town’s planning board, which run to nearly 7,000 pages, contain no mention of sharia, the Muslim Brotherhood or other rightwing hobgoblins.
But the Islamic society’s lawyers suspected – and would later allege in court – that their opponents were showing another face when they talked to each other on the internet. A commenter named “LC” – who appeared to be Caratzola – often expressed anti-Muslim sentiments when the mosque was debated on local web forums and national sites with names such as Bare Naked Islam. (Motto: “It isn’t Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you.”)
Caratzola was also listed as a member of a Gaffney-affiliated group set up to defend against the supposedly creeping influence of sharia on US courts. (“I stand by that,” Caratzola later told the New York Times, claiming that “every single terrorist attack in the last 20 years was committed by Muslims.”)
In December 2015, a few days after a Muslim husband and wife killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, and shortly before candidate Donald Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, the town’s planning board voted to reject the mosque.
At Caratzola’s urging, the town government also adopted a new ordinance that raised the minimum size of the plot required to build any new house of worship – which would effectively prevent the Islamic Society from building on its own site in the future. The Islamic Society quickly filed a lawsuit against the township, alleging the opposition was a “well-funded machine” that was “substantially grounded in anti-Muslim animus”.
The lawsuit particularly highlighted Caratzola’s role as a ringleader of the opposition. In a letter to a local newspaper, she accused the Islamic Society of “slander” – and invoked the concept of taqiyya to suggest that Chaudry’s mosque proposal was not what it seemed. “Many people and groups in the Muslim community,” she wrote, “are trying to quash what we so fervently cherish in America – the freedom of speech.”
The most damning evidence produced by the Islamic Society in the course of its lawsuit came from the correspondence of the town’s elected officials, many of whom had formerly served and clashed with Chaudry. They expressed their hostility in raw, racially offensive terms.
Other emails contained jokes about Muslims, pigs and Barack Obama. “Man child,” John Carpenter, another committee member, wrote of Obama. “The product of fools, raised by idiots and coddled by affirmative action. Behold the beast.”
The emails revealed that Carpenter had even lobbied to prevent Chaudry from participating in a September 11 commemoration ceremony, alleging he was an extremist. “[Find] a real moderate Muslim,” he wrote. “There must be one. We shouldn’t look the other way on his views – we owe that to our dead residents. Let’s make it happen without that fool.” When the correspondence came out in court filings, Carpenter offered no apologies. “You should not confuse contempt with bigotry,” he told a newspaper. “I’m allowed to not like the guy.”
A particularly vociferous mosque opponent named Nick Xu, a Chinese-American volunteer for Trump’s campaign, gave a speech claiming that the Islamic Society’s lawsuit was part of a “systematic plot” to wage war through the courts. “If you google ‘Islamic Lawfare’,” he said, “you’re going to see dozens, dozens of these kind of lawsuits.”
The Islamic Society also claimed it had the constitution on its side – specifically, the first-amendment protection of the freedoms of religion and assembly. And Chaudry could call upon a powerful ally: Barack Obama.
Under his administration, the Justice Department intervened on behalf of Muslims in many mosque disputes, including a highly publicised case in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the construction of a mosque was opposed with lawsuits, protests and an arson attack. It was able to rely on a powerful legal tool: a law, originally passed with bipartisan support in 2000, that specifically bans local governments from discriminating against religious organisations when it comes to land use.
Unfortunately, while Obama was still in office, on 31 December 2016, a federal judge issued a preliminary decision in the Basking Ridge case, finding that the planning board had exercised “unbridled and unconstitutional discretion” in requiring the mosque to have more parking than other houses of worship. Though the case was far from over, it was clear that the law favoured Chaudry.
As a result, with that, and without debate, the town committee grimly voted to approve the settlement, agreeing to reverse the planning board’s rejection while paying the Islamic Society $3.5 million. John Carpenter was the lone dissenter. The townspeople again raised a loud clamour. “We understand your frustration,” the mayor told them. “But this is what we are required to do by federal law.”
Under the terms of the Islamic Society’s settlement, the mosque was granted a rehearing before the planning board in August, at which “no commentary regarding Islam or Muslims” was to be considered. (as ordered by Loretta Lynch)
The procedure was a mere formality, and the mosque was approved. Lori Caratzola, who recently moved out of Basking Ridge, was not present for the vote. She did not respond to interview requests; neither did the Thomas More Law Center, the rightwing group that came to her aid in the Islamic Society’s lawsuit.
With the federal case concluded, the issue of the subpoenas to private citizens is now moot. But the Thomas More Law Center has continued to file lawsuits on the behalf of other mosque opponents, including neighbour Loretta Quick, claiming that their elected representatives had “colluded with ISBR’s ‘Civilization Jihad’”. Another lawsuit, brought by a former member of the planning board, is challenging the mosque’s approval on procedural grounds.
The Thomas More Law Center (“TMLC”) has learned that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (“ISBR”), which was trying to obtain zoning changes to build a mosque in Bernards Township, NJ, has hidden from public view anti-Christian and anti-Semitic verses on its website, as well as its connection to the Islamic Society of North America (“ISNA”)— an unindicted co-conspirator in the largest terrorism financing trial in America.
ISNA is claimed by the Muslim Brotherhood as one of “our organizations and . . . our friends.” According to internal documents seized by the FBI, the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy is to engage in a “grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within . . .”—one of the stages of this civilization jihad is the building of mosques and Islamic centers.
“It’s far from over,” Zubulake told me. “We’re going to keep fighting it to the bitter end.”
A recent Cato Institute survey found that 47% of all Republicans – and a quarter of Americans overall – would support a ban on building new mosques in their communities.